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MLB Playoffs 2017: The Cubs and Nationals pitching staffs, part 1

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An overview of the Cubs and Nationals moundsmen.

Jose Quintana pitching against the Pirates
Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

And so it begins: The Chicago Cubs will attempt to defend a World Series title for the first time since 1909. It seems fitting that they will face a Washington Nationals team led by former Cubs manager Dusty Baker.

I’ll talk more about the Dusty factor (also known as the “just how many innings have your guys thrown this year” stat) in a bit because I’m sure it will impact this series in some way shape or form, but let’s set up some context first.

Since the games are still days away (man, time moves slowly between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason) I had some time to take a closer look at the data we have on these two pitching staffs. I wanted to see if we could get a sense of how they line up going into the National League Division Series. Given the immense amount of material, this is part one of a trilogy. Today I’ll take a look at team stats and managers. Part 2 will be an in-depth look at the starting rotations for the Cubs and the Nationals and Part 3 will be an in-depth look at the bullpens for both teams. Consider the trilogy your one stop shop for everything you need to know about the starters, bullpens, and state of the rotations as we enter the gauntlet that is October baseball.

The team stats I’m going to focus on today are ERA, K/9, and BB/9. These are stats I’ve used a bunch and most of us are pretty familiar with them, but just as a reminder, they give us an idea of a pitcher’s performance across nine innings with regards to three metrics: Earned Runs, Strikeouts and Walks.

Full-season numbers are a little misleading here, though. The Cubs were a dramatically different team in the second half than the first half and the playoffs are all about peaking at the right time. To that end, I’ve broken out second half comparisons for each of these numbers for the starters and the bullpen for both teams.

I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on managers and intangibles.

Starter Overview

There is a pretty dramatic difference between the Cubs starting pitching performance in the first and second half. While the Nationals continue to hold an edge in K/9 (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will do that for you) the Cubs actually gain an advantage in ERA in the second half and increase their advantage in BB/9 as you can see from the charts below:

2017 team starters NLDS

Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Cubs 4.05 8.30 2.94
Nationals 3.63 9.36 3.05
Starter ERA, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

Second half team starters NLDS

Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Cubs 3.36 8.56 2.51
Nationals 3.53 9.31 3.19
Second half ERA, K/9, & BB/9 Fangraphs

That said, these stats are still a little misleading because they include all starters during the regular season and neither team is going to use all of its starters in a starting role in the post-season. With that in mind, Part 2 of this series will take an in-depth look at the projected starters for each team.

Rotations

Both teams have elite arms and injury issues that they are dealing with that make the order and usage of those arms uncertain.

The Cubs seem to be trying to give Jake Arrieta as much rest as possible as he tries to recover from a mild hamstring strain as Patrick Mooney reported yesterday:

It was announced Wednesday that Jake won’t go till game 4, which will help him rest. Meanwhile, Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester (who had a few rough outings in September) will go in Games 1 and 2, and Jose Quintana will start at Wrigley on Monday.

At least the Cubs know they are going with a four-man rotation at this point. Federal Baseball hypothesized that the Nationals would go with a three-man rotation in the Division Series given the strength of their top three starters. While this is certainly not unprecedented (after all, the Cardinals started John Lackey on short rest down two games to one against the Cubs in 2015), it’s worth noting that short rest can be unpredictable. It’s decisions like these that I hope add up and break in the Cubs favor over the course of the series. If the Nationals decided to add a fourth man to the rotation it would likely be Tanner Roark.

Additionally, the minor hamstring cramp that sidelined Max Scherzer in his final start seems to have potentially pushed him back at least to game two and possibly to game three. As he told ESPN.com Tuesday, he can run and lift weights, but it hurts when he tries to pitch. Which seems to be the crux of the matter, if you ask me.

Bullpen Overview

The Nationals went into the trade deadline desperately needing to upgrade their bullpen and they did. By adding Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Athletics and Brandon Kintzler from the Twins, they have taken what used to be the glaring weakness on their team and turned it into a strength. As the Washington Post reported in August:

In the 30 games since Madson and Doolittle arrived, the Nationals have won 11 games when scoring fewer than five runs. They did that 16 times in 92 games before the trade. Also since the trade, they are 6-3 in one-run games. They were 13-12 before.

The same Washington Post piece notes how much the bullpen failures “irked” the entire team. Just like the Cubs got a new outlook on the season when Quintana entered after the All-Star break, it’s fair to say that the bullpen overhaul reinvigorated the Nationals.

You can see the stark difference between the Nationals performance in the charts below:

Team bullpen stats 2017

Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Cubs 3.80 9.98 4.25
Nationals 4.41 8.46 3.14
Second half ERA, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

Team bullpen stats - second half

Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Team ERA K/9 BB/9
Cubs 4.48 10.24 4.70
Nationals 3.54 8.76 3.03
Second half ERA, K/9 & BB/9 Fangraphs

As we’ve covered here on BCB recently, you can also probably see a reversal of fortune for the Cubs bullpen. What started out as a first-half strength has been a lot less reliable in the second half. I’ll take a closer look at these numbers in Part 3 of this series, because the one important caveat here is that these are total bullpen numbers, and neither team will have their weaker bullpen arms on their roster for the NLDS.

The Intangibles

The lifelong Cubs fan in me really wanted to call this section “The Dusty Factor” and be done with it, but as I thought about this more I decided to refrain. While managers will be one of the big intangibles in this series the other looming question has to be the Pressure.

The Pressure

As strange as this will sound to those of us who have followed this team for years, the Cubs might be the most battle-tested and experienced team in the postseason. They are in the playoffs for the third year in a row with functionally the same core of players. They overcame perhaps the highest-pressure situation in sports, a 108-year curse, and they did it with their backs against the wall in escalating situations throughout last October and November.

  • Ninth inning comeback in game four of the NLDS? Check.
  • Down two games to one against the Dodgers and facing the best pitcher in the planet in the NLCS? Check.
  • Down three games to one in the World Series and needing to win out to be champions? Check.
  • Surrendering a lead in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series and needing an extra innings rally to win it all? Check

And, perhaps most importantly of all, realizing at the All-Star break that the team that just steamrolled to the World Series was playing .500 ball and having the ability to rally to the best second half record in the National League? Check.

The Nationals, on the other hand, are playing under a ton of pressure. In 2012 the Nationals entered a championship window that seemed all but inevitable. They were so confident they decided to be cautious with their young ace, Stephen Strasburg, and made a decision to shut him down for the playoffs. They lost that postseason series after being one strike away — twice! — and the next year, they fell just short of even making the postseason, and the whataboutism in D.C. baseball began.

In 2014 they ran into an even-year Giants team on their way to a World Series Championship. In 2015 they signed Max Scherzer to a $210 million deal to get back to the postseason and then failed to make the postseason, a decision that ultimately led to Matt Williams being fired and replaced by Dusty Baker. Last year saw another NLDS exit in the playoffs (this time at the hands of the Dodgers) and so it is that the team that seemed destined to win multiple championships since 2012 hasn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs during that entire time period. While the Cubs, yes, the team you’ve known most of your life as the “Lovable Losers” comes in with the confidence and swagger.

Pressure is a funny thing, when you meet its expectations and manage it accordingly, it’s a tremendous asset, but its equally dangerous when the “Pressure Exceeds the Pleasure” to borrow a phrase from our own Joe Maddon. I have no way to predict how this plays out, but it’s certainly a factor.

All Right, The Dusty Factor

In August I was scrolling through Fangraphs as part of my daily routine when I came across a title that just made me shake my head: Dusty Baker is Throwing Caution, Pitch Counts to the Wind.

It was so classically Dusty. Honestly, does it get more Dusty than this?

And this is where Baker stands out from the crowd.

While pitch counts are crude metrics, only 10 teams have allowed a starting pitcher to exceed 120 pitches this season; only two teams have allowed it to occur on multiple occasions.

Baker and the Nationals have accomplished it four times.

Baker is lapping the field.

It isn’t just high pitch count games, though. Nationals starting pitchers this year have thrown 84⅔ more innings than Cubs starters this year (973 to 888⅓, respectively). It’s not just innings, either. The chart below shows the total pitches thrown for the 58 pitchers qualified via Team Ranking:

Total pitches thrown: Cubs & Nationals

Pitcher Pitches Thrown MLB Rank
Pitcher Pitches Thrown MLB Rank
Gonzalez 3364 5th
Roark 3216 11th
Quintana 3176 12th
Lester 3131 19th
Scherzer 3111 20th
Lackey 2772 43rd
Arrieta 2743 45th
Strasburg 2742 46th
2017 total pitches Team Ranking

Now the first thing that jumps out at me is that each team has four pitchers qualified on this list. The Cubs have: Quintana, Lester, Lackey and Arrieta, while the Nationals have: Gonzalez, Roark, Scherzer and Strasburg. But I have some serious questions about pitch counts given this chart.

These numbers don’t seem that out of line for some of the proven horses in the mix here: Lester, Quintana, and Scherzer are known inning-eaters and all seem in line with their historical averages. Lester is probably a little low, on purpose, since Maddon is likely compensating for back to back postseason runs. Similarly, Tanner Roark’s Fangraphs page indicates he’s also thrown a lot of innings over the years (some of those innings have been better than others) but the mileage is there... however...

Gonzalez has already thrown almost 200 more pitches than Jon Lester before the playoffs have started. Gonzalez pitched 201 innings this year, but hadn’t pitched 200+ innings prior to that since 2011. Similarly, Stephen Strasburg is the poster child for pitching injuries. The idea that he’s thrown basically the same number of pitches as Lackey and Arrieta would be terrifying to me if I were a Nationals fan.

It’s difficult to quantify the actual impact managers have on the game, but as a person who’s experienced the Cubs under both of the managers in this series, I’m tremendously thankful the Cubs will be guided by Joe Maddon rather than Dusty Baker in this series (and hopefully, late into October).

Final Thoughts

The Nationals have formidable starting pitching with a much improved bullpen and the weight of a thousand expectations entering Friday. The Cubs have a battle-tested crew of postseason veterans and have shown an uncanny ability to bounce back in the face of pressure-filled baseball. Both teams bring veteran managers to a series that could be one of the toughest head-to-head matchups in October.

It sounds like everything we’ve come to expect from playoff baseball.